Key Enablers for Women’s SMEs in the UK

Leveraging the Women’s Market Ecosystem

Jill Pay, Chair of the Pink Shoe Steering Committee and a former official of the UK Parliament, guided the panel through a discussion around how governments can create an enabling environment for women-owned businesses. They explored successes and challenges women face in launching and growing enterprises as well as potential solutions that can be used to mitigate these challenges in the UK. A key solution discussed to increase capital access was the option to set up a UK fund targeting women entrepreneurs, leveraging lessons from the design of the World Bank’s US$1 billion We-Fi.

Key Points

    • The US introduced a procurement quota for women entrepreneurs into government buying procedures about 25 years ago that served as an example to the UK. Baroness Lorely Burt worked with the UK government to implement something similar, arguing that it makes business sense – SMEs can provide better service, faster turnaround and more flexibility.
    • A Women and Enterprise All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was created to explore the issue more deeply. APPGs allow outside organizations to work with and inform government representatives who can influence policy.

Policy Forum 2017 Summit

    • The Women and Enterprise APPG is exploring seven areas, including: skills and education, inclusivity and diversity, data and information, business support through coaching and mentoring, access to finance and fiscal awareness, international links, and supply chain. They learn best practices from and benchmark against other countries.
    • Some findings NatWest has discovered from its research into women in enterprise include:
      • Access to funding is absolutely crucial for launching and supporting businesses.
      • Women borrow much less than men, and they often borrow from family rather than banks.
      • Women are very risk aware, and when they do take the risk and borrow, they repay.
      • In the UK, 91 percent of venture capital goes to male-owned businesses, and 87 percent of venture capitalists are males.
    • Julie made several recommendations on creating an enabling environment for women in business:
      • Ensure portions of existing funds such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships and the Enterprise Guarantee Fund in the UK are earmarked for women.
      • Ensure women are educated about what is available for them.
      • Set up a specific fund for women, like the World Bank’s We-Fi.
    • Karen shared that the US government is currently targeting 5 percent of procurement from women-owned businesses. An increasing number of women are seeking venture capital funding, but only 2 percent currently goes to women. When Harvard did a study to learn why, they learned that all of the VC firms were run by men, and that the exchanges during these pitches put women on the defense.
    • World Bank research has found that 155 of 175 countries still have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunity.
    • Karen offered some ideas that could help enable growth in women’s businesses, including agreement on the idea of setting up a fund like the World Bank’s We-Fi to support women in business, governments adopting metrics for success and making the data publicly available, training women to do business with governments, and getting creative with collateral.
    • The Pink Shoe Club is an association of mainly women business owners that uses its clout to advocate for a stronger enabling environment for women in business. In 2016 Pink Shoe developed its Economic Blueprint that has key action areas that all businesswomen associations can rally behind. This is modeled in part on the experience of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) in the US, which advocates on behalf of 5.5+ million women business owners who have agreed to basic policies that must be achieved.
      • Pink Shoe advocates for four pillars: access to capital, markets, research and training/mentoring/coaching.
      • The organization is looking to build a data repository to provide hard evidence of the business case for all ecosystem actors, develop partnerships, and produce evidence-based case studies as well as new opportunities for women business owners.
  • Helene concurred that a key recommendation is the setting up of a UK fund that is modeled on the We-Fi facility.
  • Panelists agreed on some design principles for such a fund:
    • It should not be part of a CSR effort.
    • It should be a mix of public and private sources of capital, with the public portion being leveraged to crowd in private capital.
    • The public funding should not crowd out private sources of capital.
    • The public funding should tackle barriers such as risk appetite of lending institutions by putting in place a guarantee on a portion of the first loss on any portfolio.
    • Strong efforts should be made to ensure the target population (women) are educated that it is available.
    • And like the We-Fi, it should support access to financial as well as non-financial services.
  • Beyond key policy recommendations, panelists shared how APPGs work in terms of getting policy enacted. APPGs roll up recommendations in policy papers that get presented to “secretaries of state,” who in turn push the legislative process.
  • All participants at the Policy Forum were encouraged to go back to their home countries and work with women entrepreneurs associations to support organic policy development. Basing policy on the insights of those affected not only makes for better policy, but also enables sustainable policymaking.

Policy Forum Audience 2017 Summit


Chairman, Pink Shoe Steering Committee

Chair Women and Enterprise All Party Parliamentary Group

Founder, Pink Shoe Club

Acting Executive Director for the US, World Bank

Head of Enterprise, Business Banking, NatWest

Member House of Lords


Collaboration is the name of the game.
— Jill Pay

We know that diverse boards and diverse companies perform better. It stands to reason that diverse governments would, too.
— Craig Tracey

Women need additional and alternative routes to get funding.
— Helene Martin Gee

Women’s economic empowerment is a global challenge – not a development problem.
— Karen Mathiasen

Access to finance is key to support women entrepreneurs.
— Julie Baker

Global business recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workforce and also in the procurement process.
— Baroness Lorely Burt